“It will take an act of God for this band to get on the radio.”
These words came from a Los Angeles radio station program director in 1992 about a little-known Anaheim ska band called No Doubt. With the release of Tragic Kingdom three years later, No Doubt sold more than 16 million copies worldwide and reached the peak of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Avoiding No Doubt on the radio became the more difficult task.
Tragic Kingdom might mark the abandonment of No Doubt’s ska roots, but don’t be too quick to call them sellouts. While the album deviates from No Doubt’s original sound, it infused what made the band unique with delicious ear candy. Tragic Kingdom, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary later this year, released seven singles and turned a bindi-wearing blonde named Gwen Stefani into a rock princess.
“Just a Girl” could not be a more fitting leadoff single for Tragic Kingdom, as it became the band’s modus operandi for years to come. The song functions as Stefani’s tongue-in-cheek feminist anthem — one that cemented her stardom as No Doubt’s tomboy front woman.
Stefani will never overwhelm with powerful vocals, but that never prevented No Doubt from creating pop magic. “Just a Girl” features Stefani’s signature bleat, even transforming into an infant-like coo on some lyrics, portraying the patronizing tone of the track. “Just a Girl” may sound like a peppy romp of a song, but lyrics like “I’ve had it up to here/ Am I making myself clear?” reflect a more militant message of exasperation.
Tragic Kingdom also features “Spiderwebs,” No Doubt’s ode to dodging an annoying person’s phone calls. The single returns to the band’s ska origins with horns adding a funky edge to Stefani’s plead for a guy to stop calling her. For a song with the phrase “I screen my phone calls,” “Spiderwebs” is surprisingly timeless. Although the song was written when people used phones with cords, the technological melodrama is still relevant today, even without references to emojis.
If No Doubt ever had a Rumors moment, it was probably during Tragic Kingdom, specifically the single “Don’t Speak.” Like Fleetwood Mac’s cornerstone album, Tragic Kingdom documents No Doubt’s inner turmoil, including the departure of keyboardist and songwriter Eric Stefani, Gwen’s brother, as well as the breakup between Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal. However, Stefani and her brother teamed up to write “Don’t Speak,” No Doubt’s classic power ballad that earned a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year.
On paper, the song is somewhat sappy and unimaginative, but in Stefani’s capable hands, it transforms into something honest and relatable. “I really feel/ That I’m losing my best friend/ I can’t believe this could be the end” is simple and straightforward, which matches Stefani’s delivery of these words with heartfelt emotion and soft, aurally pleasing vocals.
Tragic Kingdom features more gems, including the manic “Excuse Me Mr.,” the defiant “Sunday Morning” and the dreamy “Hey You!” The album holds up because of songs such as these that showcase the band’s versatility and Stefani’s sensuality as a performer.
While Tragic Kingdom was certainly the peak for No Doubt, it was by no means an aberration, as the group continued to succeed well into the early millennium. The band dissolved in 2004 to work on their individual solo projects, most notably Stefani teaching the world to spell “bananas.” They reunited for a 2012 album, Push and Shove, but much of the mystique of No Doubt stems from their youth, whether it was the band’s juvenile lyrics, Stefani’s energetic performance style or drummer Adrian Young’s rocking Mohawk.
In many ways, No Doubt paved the way for bands like The Pretty Reckless and Paramore with Tragic Kingdom. An enigmatic front woman goes a long way in rock ‘n’ roll, especially today when catchy, pleasing tunes will always get more radio play. Stefani and company perfected this model when they ditched their roots for a more pop-driven sound on Tragic Kingdom, but their fusion probably did more for the ska genre anyway.